TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault is mentioned in the following review.
Post-apocalyptic movies used to be a favourite genre of mine; often seeing a lone stranger wandering – or, more often, driving across – an irradiated wasteland, the genre was fantastic for shining a light on the extremes that people would go to in order to survive. Quite often pretty dark in terms of subject matter and with anti-heroes as their protagonists, forced to resort to violence to keep going, these stories were also a good way of showing that it was still possible to retain shreds of humanity when it counted.
Yet as I’ve got older, I’ve lost the taste for the relentless grimdark feel of post-apocalyptic stories. Perhaps I’m drawn towards wanting a bit more escapism in films; perhaps also, it’s a side effect of the fact that there’s an awful lot of very dark things happening out in the open and right under our noses these days. I certainly don’t need a film to show me how inhumane people can be, nor the lengths that people will go to for a shred of power or control.
The Book of Eli sees the eponymous man-on-a-mission – played brilliantly by Denzel Washington heading west through an irradiated American landscape, dealing with cannibal gangs and a dangerous frontier town run by the obsessed Gary Oldman, who’s desperate to locate a special book that’ll give him ultimate control over people – and which Eli could well be in possession of.
Though its stylised, often desaturated visuals are pretty astonishing – if a bit prone to looking artificial at times, though one could argue that this in itself may have been a stylistic choice – and the fight scenes are stunningly shot and choreographed, with some seriously well implemented gore effects, it’s a little too relentlessly grim for its own good, for much of its running time.
If people aren’t being hacked to pieces, eaten or raped, there’s the ever present threat of all the above. It opens with our hero hunting and eating a cat, which – though artfully shot – sets the grim tone immediately. There’s a late stage twist that doesn’t immediately make much sense, but there are clues to it dotted throughout the film which do reward repeat viewing, if you can stomach the atmosphere of cruelty and hopelessness a second time. There’s an awful lot of clues to the theological nature of the film, even in the title. For fear of spoiling the story, however – if you’re au fait with Bible stories – I shall say no more.
It does end its story on a hopeful note, but it feels as if it wraps things up a little too neatly for its own good. The ending almost feels heavy handed, too blunt and on the nose; almost as if it’s been tacked on from another story entirely, perhaps one which didn’t have its main character ignore the murder of an innocent man and the rape (then murder) of his companion early on in the proceedings.
Still, it is a brilliantly shot film with incredible production design and some fantastic performances, particularly from the ever reliable Washington and Oldman. There’s a weird cameo from Malcolm McDowell, though I won’t divulge his role, given that it’d likely be a big spoiler.
It’s far from meritless then, but the ending does – for me – go off the rails and ask a bit too much suspension of disbelief and faith, which is perhaps appropriate in context. Though Eli’s journey is intriguing – and often depressingly grim – his destination just didn’t sit right with me.
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